Part Of The Family

Ellen Schwab says  that although the pain is  there at first, remembering the happy times with one’s pet is a vital part to the grieving process.
Ellen Schwab says that although the pain is
there at first, remembering the happy times with one’s pet is a vital part to the grieving process.

It’s a day that Pikesville residents Murray and Joyce Hankin can’t forget.

“I still get tears in my eyes talking about it,” Joyce said.

Last September, Murray was walking to the mailbox along with Willie, the couple’s Cairn Terrier. Joyce was standing nearby on a neighbor’s lawn. In an instant, Willie collapsed.

The Hankins rushed Willie, who had been suffering from a malignant tumor on his liver, to the vet. They learned that their beloved dog’s heart simply stopped.

Nine months later, the grieving process is still ongoing. Joyce thinks about the spot beside the couple’s bed where he always lay during the night. Murray, who routinely took Willie with him to work, remembers how he used to be conscious of the dog’s presence under his desk so he didn’t accidentally kick him.

“He was my steady companion,” Murray said. “I can’t imagine anyone having a pet for 15 years and not feeling a loss.”

Murray is spot on. When it comes to pet bereavement, the Hankins are not alone.

According to the ASPCA, 62 percent of all U.S. households have a pet, and there are 78.2 million dogs owned in the United States. Pet loss is inevitable. Still, many feel embarrassed or self-conscious about admitting that a dog’s death takes a toll on their physical, emotional and mental health. And their feelings can often be met with skepticism from non-pet owners who don’t grasp the gravity of the ordeal.

Veterinarian Dr. Michael Shulkin said in his 31 years of practicing, in addition to grieving the loss of his own pets, he’s seen both families and individuals become torn apart at the prospect of having to let their pet go. He said the strength of people’s connections to their pets cannot be underestimated.

“It is not like a family member. It is a family member,” said Dr. Shulkin, who works at Dunloggin Veterinary Hospital in Ellicott City. “There’s this major void that exists for people who lose their animal. You walk in the door and the animal that has been greeting you for umpteen years isn’t there anymore.”

Dr. Shulkin noted that the magnitude and duration of the grieving process is different for everyone, but he said that airing out one’s feelings is almost always a positive step.

In that respect, Ellen Schwab sees eye-to-eye with the doctor. She too advises that one shouldn’t tamp down their grief but instead must work through it.

Schwab, former cantor at Har Sinai Congregation, has suffered through animal loss. A couple of years ago, she decided to use her platform as a clergyperson to extend her services as a grief counselor to individuals dealing with pet loss. She estimates that between volunteering her expertise at a monthly pet bereavement support group at the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown and through informal one-on- one sessions, she’s counseled dozens of grieving pet owners.

“I’ve had dogs die in my arms, and it’s an incredibly difficult thing to go through,” Schwab said. “People are often surprised at the depth of their feelings when they lose a pet — how hard it hits them.”

What does our faith have to say about pet loss?

“The whole idea that Judaism brings us is that, on Shabbat, our animals are to rest as we do,” Schwab said. “The whole idea of kindness to animals is very big in our Torah — it was not always that way with our neighbors in Biblical times.”

As far as the best methods to grieve, Schwab recommends emphasizing the good times as much as one can. Although difficult at first, she said that as the pain slowly recedes it becomes easier to conjure up fond memories.

The Baltimore Humane Society also aims to give pet owners useful avenues to lessen the heartache. Inaddition to its support group, theorganization, through its Nicodemus Memorial Park (one of only a few pet cemeteries in Baltimore County), offers memorial services and cremation/burial options that help individuals achieve a sense of closure.

Andrew Mazan, the Humane Society’s funeral and cemetery services
director, said that acceptance — preceded by phases of denial and isolation, anger and depression — is the final stage of the grieving process. He explained why the bond with dogs is so powerful.

“It’s because of the unconditional love,” Mazan said. “Pets don’t know anything but how to love us, and as humans beings that’s what we want — to be loved.”

Both Mazan and Schwab noted that filling the void of a lost pet by bringing in a new one is often a tricky choice. Individuals battle with the potential guilt brought on by finding a replacement animal as well as fear of having to undergo the same feelings of loss again down the road.

Weighing the pros and cons, Murray and Joyce Hankin are considering
rescuing a dog.

The cremated remains of Willie lie in a pretty box in their kitchen. Of course, there’s sadness at the thought of their beloved pup. But, as time goes on, happiness begins to rise above the grief. And for right now, that’s good enough.

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